How Netflix Gave This Kitschy 1960s Sci-Fi Show A Feminist Makeover

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
In the fourth episode of the original Lost in Space, which ran from 1965 to 1968, Dr. Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart) dyes the hair of her 19-year-old oldest daughter, Judy (Marta Kristen), before preparing dinner for the family. In the middle of the beauty routine, Maureen’s second daughter, Penny (Angela Cartwright), an intellectually curious 11-year-old, comes prancing over from an exhilarated encounter with an unknown life form. Maureen calmly diffuses her daughter’s ravings, and turns back for the grand unveiling of her daughter’s hair. “It looks very nice, dear,” she says.
Technically, Maureen is a biochemist, though that fact is only addressed in the show’s first episode. She’s also an incredibly impressive biochemist: Along with her three children and husband, Maureen was selected from a pool of two million people to be a space colonist. But even after piercing Earth’s atmosphere and flying into the galaxy, Maureen is still confined by earthly gender roles. On the show, she tends to the family’s needs, prepares meals, grows crops in the garden, and uses her womanly compassion to spare the show’s “villain,” Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), from abandonment, time and time again.
That the original Lost in Space was a product of its time is evident in characters like Maureen, and in the show’s wardrobe. After their ship is derailed by the intervention of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), the Robinson family wanders around space in orange and brown uniforms more befitting the aesthetics of ‘60s America than the practicalities of space travel. In the same way, Netflix’s Lost in Space reboot, which premieres on April 13, is very much a product of 2018. The costumes are more space-appropriate, and the women aren’t on the sidelines of the action, dyeing their hair — they’re driving the action.
The reboot follows a similar conceit to the original, in that an American family is selected to travel as space colonists, and when the mission goes awry, the Robinsons are — you guessed it — lost in space. In the reboot, the initial idea to venture into space was Dr. Maureen Robinson’s (Molly Parker). While her husband, John (Toby Stephens), was away on secret missions, Maureen groomed her three children for their imminent departure. A steely, no-nonsense aerospace engineer, Maureen was fully prepared to leave her absent husband behind before he unceremoniously showed up. Their fractured marriage bears little resemblance to the relationship between John and Maureen in the original — in the '60s, Maureen would give her husband a chaste peck before he adventured off in the distance.
Since the family has been separated for years, the trip’s calamities also function as a kind of high-adrenaline family bonding. This time around, Maureen doesn’t have a spare moment to dye Judy’s (Taylor Russell) hair, even if Judy wanted to make a cosmetic alteration for her hair to please the five other people on the planet —and we doubt she would. Disasters fall like dominos, one contributing to the next. Luckily, Maureen and her daughters, Judy and Penny (Mina Sundwall), are remarkably capable space agents, and are nimble enough to weather these disasters. The women are flawed, too: Maureen’s a control freak who gives her children nonstop, and occasionally incorrect, instructions; Penny is impulsive to the point of being irresponsible; Judy, the opposite, is married to rules.
In another universe, you could easily see Penny and Judy volunteering to join the crew of passionate scientists volunteering to venture into the unknown in Annihilation, or working in Shuri’s lab in Black Panther. As this Consequence of Sound article aptly pointed out, Lost in Space is just the latest work of pop culture to feature women in powerful STEM positions — a heartening trend.
In addition to revamping the women Robinsons, the new Lost in Space completely reworked the show’s central antagonist, Dr. Zachary Smith. In the original, Dr. Smith is an incompetent grouch, more court jester than villain. Now, Dr. Smith is a scheming, brilliant psychologist (or so she claims) – and she’s played by Parker Posey. Trapped in the same alien planet, Maureen and Dr. Smith must outwit each other.
Lost in Space has been updated in a number of ways for its Netflix bow. The robot in the original show, who resembled an aluminum can, is now a space-age Demagorgon. The special effects are impressive (read: expensive). But the most crucial upgrade is the show’s women, who, this time around, aren’t confined to gender roles — and we doubt they ever were. After all, Lost in Space is set in the future. One can hope, by then, we'd have figured out how to let women be whatever they want to be, space explorers and all.
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